D.C.’s Yu Ying PCS inducted into the National Charter School Hall of Fame

Yesterday, at its annual conference the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools announced that Yu Ying PCS was inducted into its National Hall of Fame.  A couple of years ago I interviewed Maquita Alexander, the charter’s head of school.  Here is a reprint of our conversation:

Although I have witnessed firsthand some truly amazing sights over my seven years covering the D.C. charter movement, I can honestly say that I was overjoyed during my recent visit with Maquita Alexander, the head of Washington Yu Ying PCS. This Chinese language immersion school currently has 552 students in grades pre-Kindergarten three to fifth. The charter, which opened in the fall of 2008, was started by a dozen parents who were fascinated by the Asian culture and language together with a strong desire for their kids to have an international education. Ms. Alexander came into her position a year after Yu Ying became a reality.

Immediately after meeting this head of school you get the feeling that she never really stops working. Information I requested was available immediately at her fingertips. Ms. Alexander seems so intertwined in the details of what is taking place at the school that I’m hoping at the end of the day she is able to sit back and enjoy all that she and her team have created.

It may be that Ms. Alexander’s drive evolved from her years of experience in the field of education. She has played a multitude of roles in her 19-year career, from being a first and second grade teacher, a reading recovery specialist, a school-based technology specialist, and an assistant principal. Fifteen of those years were spent in Fairfax County Public Schools.

Washington Yu Ying is housed on a sprawling three-acre campus complete with a playground, turf field, and nature center located near the Old Soldiers Home in Northeast D.C. The redbrick building, which looks straight out of an Ivy League college, originally was a Marist seminary that was used by the troubled Joz-Arz Public Charter School before it relinquished its Board of Education charter in 2006. Washington Yu Ying’s previous executive director Mary Shaffner, now the executive director of the D.C. International Public Charter School, played a major role in securing the building which now measures approximately 50,000 square feet after the current occupant augmented the space with two 10,000 square foot additions. Before moving into this permanent facility in the fall 2011, Yu Ying shared a Building Hope charter school incubator space with Potomac Preparatory PCS on Eighth Street, N.E.

The aesthetics of the site is in perfect alignment with the high level of academics going on inside. For example, pre-kindergarten three and four year olds spend their entire day speaking Mandarin. Ms. Alexander wanted me to know that the kids almost universally love learning this language, something I can attest to seeing the broad smiles on their faces as I visited the brightly colored classrooms. Once the children reach Kindergarten then English language classes are paired with those across the hall taught in Chinese. The same pattern repeats though the fifth grade, with pupils learning in English one day and Mandarin the next. Ms. Alexander explained that the rotation between classes does not involve a repeat of the same material in two languages. “The teachers coordinate their lesson plans,” the Yu Ying head of school related, “so that each session adds content to those the students just experienced.”

Besides language immersion, a crucial component of the Yu Ying curriculum is the International Baccalaureate program. Ms. Alexander stated that this course of study begins in pre-Kindergarten three in Mandarin. The pre-Kindergarten four and younger students take four trans-disciplinary units and the older students take six. The combination of the Chinese language with I.B. has led to Yu Ying being quantified as a Tier 1 charter on the PCSB’s Performance Management Framework for each of the three years that schools have been ranked. The school is doing so well that there are over 1,000 children on their waiting list.

But I wanted to know from Ms. Alexander what other factors have led to her institution’s outstanding success. It appeared from her immediate response that she has thought about this question before. “We have a tremendous leadership team that has been in place for the last couple of years,” the Yu Ying head of school responded. “We have a fantastic teaching staff. They are completely passionate about what they do. To support them we have half day Friday for professional development and team planning. This is in addition to two weeks of professional development before the start of the school year and additional days throughout the term. We have created an exceptionally interesting curriculum together with the central idea of the Common Core, but simultaneously we provide latitude around how the teachers present the material to their pupils.”

Ms. Alexander informed me that the school’s staff spends considerable time analyzing student data. They utilize a test that is a predictor of how students will perform on the PARCC, and data specialists create dashboards documenting each child’s progress. Several layers of intervention are available for kids who are falling behind.

The Yu Ying head of school talked to me about the challenges inherent in her program to support a pipeline of qualified teacher applicants. “All of the Mandarin instructors come from mainland China or Taiwan and they must speak English,” Ms. Alexander remarked. “We sponsor them on visas and green cards, and have a partnership with two universities. There is, however, a lottery for visas and as a result we don’t get to keep as many instructors as we would like. The school also has had some interesting experiences with miscommunication. We try and mitigate these situations by assigning our foreign teachers English mentors, and we provide the Chinese teachers with cross-cultural training.”

Another fascinating aspect of the program that needed to be tackled is the whole nature of the dual immersion pedagogy. Ms. Alexander detailed, “Research shows that by the fifth grade students begin to catch up with their traditionally taught peers, but until that year it is important to keep in mind that they are getting half of the instruction in English that pupils in other schools receive. Therefore, our English teachers need to work twice as hard.”

Yu Ying has defied some of the recent fads in education by providing their student body with virtually no test preparation and not a lot of “skill and drill.” Ms. Alexander said that they substitute these activities with an emphasis on writing and having them think about, question, and analyze the material being presented.

Yu Ying has a 95 percent student retention rate, but the staff is still not completely satisfied. They want to better serve those who are behind grade level; in fact, they want to do the best for every child who attends the charter. The teachers and administrators continue to reflect on how to improve their practice, how they can better connect with parents in a transparent manner, and how everyone involved with the school can spend more time in the classroom.

Ms. Alexander stressed that she has a real sense of urgency regarding providing the best education to her students that she can. She commented, “No parent wants to waste a year of his or her child’s educational experience while their school learns how to improve. My kids didn’t have a year to waste. We have to do whatever we need to do now to help our student body learn to the best of their ability.”

Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS students shine at 2018 gala

I just love when organizations that have hosted annual events shake things up by re-imagining the ceremony.  So was the case last Thursday evening with Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS’s 2018 Shining Star Gala.  This year the celebration was moved from the charter’s classic building in Anacostia where it has been held in the past to the downtown D.C. law firm of  Hogan Lovells U.S. LLP.  The chair of Thurgood Marshall’s board of directors Jonathan Stoel, a graduate from Georgetown Law, is a leader in the practice, and many of the school’s program partners such as Crowell & Moring LLP, Latham & Watkins LL, and Williams & Connolly LLP, have offices located in close vicinity to this site.  While Thurgood Marshall’s executive director Richard Pohlman assured the guests that next spring the proceedings will be back at the school, it was fascinating to see the transformation of all of the usual activities to a new space.  Come with me inside.

When attendees entered the expansive first level atrium of the office building, they were whisked to the 13th floor by a TMA student.  Joining me on my elevator ride was Meiko, a sophomore, who explained that she chose to attend the charter because of the many support systems it provides.  Once I arrived at the main level, Destiny, an 11th grader who has spent her entire high school experience at Thurgood Marshall, directed me to the registration desk.  She related that when she first came to the school she was behind academically in math, and shyly pointed out that before coming to TMA she was not so good a pupil.  Now, she beamed that she is on the honor role.

I immediately headed up a grand staircase to the roof terrace with its bird’s eye view of the Washington Monument.  Down a long path where the patio took a turn to the right was seated a musical quartet composed of individuals playing the keyboard, bass, drums, and saxophone. But before I could reach the bar at that end, I was stopped in my tracks by Spanish instructor Jessie Yuan.  She has been teaching this subject at the school for a decade and she was ready for my arrival.  “Working at this charter school offers more flexibility around the design of the curriculum and the administration supports our creativity,” Ms. Yuan exclaimed.  She detailed that while D.C. requires high school students take to two years of a foreign language, TMA has its pupils to take three.  Ms. Yuan informed me that she utilizes Organic World Language, an out-of-the -box pedagogy that encourages students to speak, draw, or circumlocute in the second language 100 percent of the time while in the classroom.  In order to explain circumlocution, the teacher  immediately engaged me in a game with her student London, a junior.  The young woman would hold up a card with a picture of an object with its name written in Spanish beneath it.  Between plentiful appetizers brought around by uniformed waiters and waitresses, Ms. Yuan and I would compete to be the one to act out a replica of the word by being the first to press a buzzer like on the television game show Jeopardy.  I immediately wanted to take Ms. Yuan’s course.

Before heading back downstairs I took a minute to review the placards positioned in each of the waist-high flower beds dividing the patio into sections every few yards.  One read “100 percent of  TMA students accepted to college.” Another stated, “TMA’s in-seat attendance rate is 94.5 percent.”  A third said that “80 percent of the alumni class from 2008 and above are enrolled in college.”

I then joined Ahnna Smith, the interim Deputy Mayor for Education, who was observing 10th grade geometry students utilizing a computer program to construct windmills.  We were in one of seven classroom explorations set up this evening.  When Ms. Smith asked one of the presenters why she liked this school the student replied that her family has always taught her that her education is the most important thing in life because it cannot be taken away.

In another math classroom I watched as two impressive girls used algebraic equations to calculate their potential future earnings in the careers of nursing and fashion design.  I stopped for a few minutes to enjoy the shrimp cocktail prepared with three different seasonings provided for guests on a side counter.  Moving next door, equally smart advanced placement chemistry students tried their best to describe to me Le Chatelier’s principal.  They are taking their AP test today.  I am confident they will pass with flying colors.  Their teacher, Liza Enrich, has been with TMA for seven years and greatly appreciates the trust in the instructional staff exhibited by the charter’s leadership.  “We are allowed to try different stategies,” Ms. Enrich informed me, “and we are never micromanaged.”

The formal program was about to begin.  On the way back upstairs to the enclosed common area that also contained two buffet stations, I heard one of the many soapbox speeches provided by students.  The extensive and well produced booklet for the evening’s activities mentions that TMA students competed in a D.C. soapbox competition sponsored by The Mikva Challenge.  The passionate address I heard spoke about education as a civil rights issue.

Mr. Pohlman in his remarks thanked all of the volunteers that provide important services to his students.  Tutoring, mentoring, and classes teaching the subject of law are just some of the ways those from outside the school work with those enrolled at TMA.  There is even an academy run by Howard University School of Law students that assist with professional development and enhancing the pupils’ legal skills.

But Mr. Pohlman also recalled that it has been a exceedingly tough year for Thurgood Marshall.  Two of its scholars, Zaire Kelly and Paris Brown, were killed by gunfire.  The TMA executive director expressed how proud he was of his school pulling through as a community in the face of these tragedies.  He was especially gratified to see his students bring national attention to the issue of violence in the inner city when Thurgood Marshall hosted students from Marjory Stoneman Doughlas High School to meet with them a few days before the March for Our Lives rally.  You could feel the warmth and admiration that these children and adults have for one another in the way that the students congratulated Mr. Pohlman for his speech at the conclusion of the presentation.   It was a truly magical night.

 

 

D.C. Council passes The Student Fair Access to School Act

Yesterday, the D.C. Council unanimously approved Education Chairman David Grosso’s bill entitled “The Student Fair Access to School Act.”  The legislation is an attempt to limit public schools ‘ ability to suspend students in grades Kindergarten through twelfth grade out of school.  The legislation was opposed by FOCUS, the DC Public Charter School Board, and most charter schools.  There was powerful testimony published here against the bill by Michael Musante, FOCUS’s senior director of government relations; Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC PCSB; and Shannon Hodge, executive director of Kingsman Academy PCS.

Mr. Grosso commented upon the vote of the council:

“The Student Fair Access to School Act is transformational—it breaks the traditional model of school discipline which pushes students out of school and, too often, into the courts.  This shifting mindset will result in students being better prepared to succeed academically and safer school environments for all. . . The Student Fair Access to School Act is the result of over a year of work, which included input from students, parents, teachers, school leaders, student and family advocates, researchers, mental health practitioners, government agency heads, and my colleagues. I appreciate that time and input immensely and urge the mayor to join us in this effort on behalf of students by signing Fair Access into law.”

In other local education news, WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle reports that Mayor Bowser may be open to having an outside group perform a top-to-bottom review of what ails DCPS.  Apparently there have been discussions between Ms. Bowser and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson about creating such a commission, which is modeled after what Virginia Governor McAuliffe did in his bid to reform Metro.  This proposal is in addition to D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh’s idea to create a research arm of the government that would evaluate data coming out of the city’s schools.

I could really save them all a lot of time.  Simply figure out how to increase dramatically the number of charter schools and private school vouchers in the nation’s capital.

 

Washington Math Science and Technology PCS will close June 30th

The DC Public Charter Board announced yesterday that Washington Math Science and Technology PCS was “unable to demonstrate that the school is economically viable” and therefore it will close the school on June 30, 2018.  This action brings to a sad conclusion a dark period of regulatory oversight by the board that began on March 12th of this year with an emergency meeting to approve the start of the charter revocation process.   The teleconference had been hastily arranged only the previous night.  What followed was a pubic hearing for the school on April 5th during which WMST revealed it had successfully accomplished numerous miraculous steps to try and put its financial state back in order.  At this session the school asked for a two-week delay on a final decision while it tried to secure an additional $500,000.

No word was ever uttered as to whether the delay was approved.  But then at the PCSB’s regularly scheduled monthly meeting on April 23rd, a final vote was taken to close the charter, which would be reversed if a pending bank loan could be ratified by 6 p.m. on the 24th and a suitable fiscal plan could be constructed within the next 72 hours.  Again, there was no communication the next day or for days that followed.

What did come to light during this period, however, was that the PCSB was not as transparent as it should have been about when it realized this school could not pay its bills.  On April 26th, Rachel Cohen, writing for the Washington City Paper, used a Freedom of Information Request to determine that the charter board’s staff had recommended that WMST be placed on a Financial Management Plan in June 2017.  Almost a year ago, in May 2017, they had first uncovered that the charter had a severe cash flow problem.

The school was never placed on the plan, apparently because the charter board’s executive director Scott Pearson thought that WMST would borrow against the equity it had in its permanent facility if it ran into desperate situations.  On April 11th, when Mr. Pearson was asked about the sudden problems at the charter when testifying in front of Councilmember David Grosso, Education Committee Chairman, he elected not to go into detail about what the PCSB knew about the school’s budget and when it knew it.  He represented the crisis as requiring a more conservative approach to the board’s charter school financial early warning system.  A short time later, Ms. Cohen’s story broke.

It took a full week to learn whether WMST had pulled out another last minute extraordinary accomplishment and had secured the $500,000 loan.  But this is all now history. The PCSB will assist families in finding new schools for WMST pupils for next year and will cover any necessary funds to make sure the school can continue operating until the end of the term.

Today is the last day parents can enroll their children through My School DC for the 2018 to 2019 school year.

 

 

Teachers’ unions should be barred from charter schools

This morning the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews bemoans a radio advertisement being run in English and Spanish by the California Teachers Association attacking charter schools.  It says:

“They’re lining up against our local public schools. One after another, out-of-state billionaires are trying to buy our politicians. Following the lead of Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, billionaires like Koch brothers allies Jim and Alice Walton have their own narrow education agenda to divert money out of our public schools and into their corporate charter schools. It’s true. Out-of-state billionaires investing millions into politicians who will protect corporate-run charter schools that lack accountability.

“So as California chooses its next generation of leaders this election we must stand up to politicians who divert money out of our neighborhood public schools and say yes to leaders who value the promise of quality public education for all students no matter where they live. And leaders who always put kids before profits. Learn more at kidsnotprofits.com. Paid for by the California Teachers Association.”

On the website the union states that is is spending 1 million dollars to run these spots in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento.   What a terrible use of its member’s hard earned cash.

These dishonest words mirror those coming from staff supporting the American Federation of Teachers at the Cesar Chavez Prep Middle School, which voted last June to join the union.  As the Washington Post’s Perry Stein revealed last week, Chavez teachers took to the streets for the second time this school year to protest management decisions at the charter.  From her piece:

“A rare battle between teachers and administrators at a charter school has broken into public view, with educators taking to the streets of a D.C. neighborhood to press their case that the school is spending millions of dollars on consultants while cutting core classroom positions.”

The teachers are apparently upset that a couple of vacant positions will not be filled.  In addition, they don’t like the fact that the Chavez board of directors decided to hire TenSquare to turnaround student academic performance.  The Cesar Chavez PCS for Public Policy has been losing revenue tied to a decline in student enrollment, and is in danger of facing closure by the DC Public Charter School Board for the classroom performance of its pupils.  I recently interviewed Josh Kern, founder and managing director of TenSquare.

Copying the script from California is Christian Herr, a science teacher at the school and a union leader.  He comments, according to Ms. Stein, “It seems to us that TenSquare is coming in and exploiting a broken evaluation system to fill their pockets.”

I have a suggestion for the teachers at this campus.  How about doing your job and instructing the children under your care?  Please stop diverting the attention of the Chavez volunteer board with your shenanigans and allow them to try and improve the charter.

What a complete waste of time and energy.

 

 

D.C. charter board not responsible for financial problems at Washington Math Science and Technology PCS

Yesterday, in stellar reporting by the Washington City Paper’s Rachel Cohen, it was revealed that the DC Public Charter School Board knew almost a year ago that there were serious financial issues at Washington Math Science and Technology Public Charter School.  Through a public records request of electronic messages to and from the PCSB’s executive director Scott Pearson on the issue of WMST’s balance sheet, she discovered the following:

“According to the emails, two PCSB school finance specialists, Mikayla Lytton and Mohammad Bashshiti, met with WMST’s head of school, N’Deye Diagne, and its business manager, Mark Addae, in May 2017 to discuss the school’s financial situation. Among other things, they talked about how between 2015 and 2017, WMST exceeded $704,000 in revenue loss as student enrollment declined, while their expenses grew by $440,000.

On June 15, 2017, Lytton, who no longer works with the PCSB, emailed Diagne and Addae writing, ‘As we discussed over the phone earlier today and as I hope you understood from our [May] meeting, we are very concerned with the school’s financial status and projections.’ Lytton wrote that the PCSB would like to work with the school to develop a ‘Financial Corrective Action Plan,’ which sets specific targets to improve a school’s financial health.”

The Financial Corrective Action Plan was never developed.  This eventually led to the highly unusual emergency meeting on March 12th, which was only announced the evening before it took place.  It was at this session that the charter revocation proceedings against the school were put in motion.

The board never mentioned that it was aware of the cash flow issues at the school as early as May 2017.  In testimony before the D.C. Council’s Education Committee earlier this month, that I don’t honestly feel is unfair to now characterize as misleading, Mr. Pearson was asked by Chairman Grosso why the difficulties at the school were not uncovered earlier.  The PCSB executive director replied that the board has early warning systems that have worked in the past but that his organization did not take a conservative enough approach to this charter’s financial reports.  He added that a more conservative review of the fiduciary books of the schools it oversees has now been implemented.  In her piece Ms. Cohen includes a communication Mr. Pearson sent to his senior staff and board members last March in which he admits, “I did not act on it aggressively enough because I believed that the school’s building had appreciated significantly and so in a worst case they could borrow against the building equity (as Ideal PCS just did).”

All of this speaks to a severe lack of transparency by the PCSB, something Mr. Pearson stated emphatically at the same hearing is a guiding value at his place of employment.  This disregard for providing the public with information continues to this day.  On Monday, April 23rd the board voted to close WMST at the end of the school year, a decision which would be reversed if a pending loan of $500,000 by United Bank to the charter was consummated within 24 hours and a valid financial corrective action plan was submitted within three days.  We are now almost a week away from these proceedings and no update about the status of the school has been released.

However, while the manner in which the board is operating is highly troubling, the difficulties that this charter finds itself in are no one’s fault but its own.  WMST should have been aware long ago that it was running out of money, which then would have led to actions to raise revenue and reduce expenses to correct the situation.  The whole mess points to a tremendous governance failure by the charter’s board of directors.  This is not the fault of the DC Public Charter School Board.

Charters love to talk about their strong desire for autonomy and defiantly rail against efforts by the PCSB to increase oversight and regulation.   But if being left alone is something schools want, then they better be excellent stewards of public funding.

 

Exclusive interview with Josh Kern, founder and managing partner of TenSquare

My recent meeting with Josh Kern marked a milestone in the history of exclusive interviews.  It was the first instance in the nine years I’ve been doing these that I sat down with someone that I have talked to in the past who is now in a different role.  In early 2011, I conversed with Mr. Kern regarding his co-founding of the nationally respected Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School.  Now, I was in the downtown office of TenSquare to understand the story behind the creation of this charter school consulting group.  But first I wanted to go back in time to learn about Mr. Kern’s decision to leave TMA and start TenSquare seven years ago.

“I felt like I had accomplished what I set out to do in co-founding the school,” Mr. Kern indicated.  “It was an amazing personal journey that began with my teaching an introduction to law class at Ballou High School to juniors and seniors when I was in my second year at Georgetown Law through the Street Law program.  I saw the challenges that these kids had in obtaining their education.  They would sometimes have to stand outside the building for 30 minutes in the cold during the winter months in order to go through a metal detector and be patted down.  In the classroom it seemed like announcements were broadcast continually over the loudspeaker which sent a strong signal that learning was not a priority.  But I loved the involvement with the students and they really enjoyed the curriculum that culminated in a mock trial.”

The experience led Mr. Kern, in the spring of his second year of law school, together with a team of 10 others, to submit an application to create Thurgood Marshall.  After it was approved, he spent his third year at Georgetown Law preparing to open the charter.  In May 2001, Mr. Kern graduated with honors and in August of the same year TMA began its operation.  Four years later it moved into its permanent location at the former DCPS Nichols Avenue School in Ward 8 after spending $12.5 million to renovate the facility in the classic tradition.  The agreement to take over the building involved negotiations between the school, the U.S. Congress, the District of Columbia, and the private sector.  Thurgood Marshall was the first charter to take advantage of New Market Tax Credits to reduce its loan amount.

Academically, the charter has consistently scored some of the city’s highest standardized test scores of open enrollment schools in reading and math while instructing a population of students of which 74 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals.  It has been ranked as Tier 1 on the DC Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework since the tool was introduced in 2012.  Mr. Kern informed me when I interviewed him the first time that education researchers had studied TMA to find that they were years ahead of leading-edge practices.  The U.S. Department of Education has used methods at TMA as the standard when comparing processes at other schools.

Therefore, with his mission accomplished, Mr. Kern was ready to move on.  During his decade at Thurgood Marshall he thought he had learned much and made a lot of mistakes.  He believed that the charter sector needed a stronger ecosystem to support the local movement.  The co-founder of TMA felt that many schools would experience the same hurdles that he did, including recruiting high performing teachers and administrators and setting up systems to effectively use student data to inform classroom instruction, and that schools deserved a resource that could provide help.

He then explored an opportunity to serve as executive director of the DC PCSB following Josephine Baker’s retirement.  At that point the Washington Post claimed that Mr. Kern was the board’s choice to lead the institution.

“The position appealed to me because I thought I could make an impact, but ultimately I felt that I could make a bigger difference for students by creating a charter school support organization.  Starting TenSquare was also a better fit with my entrepreneurial nature.  Leading an authorizer is a very challenging job, and Scott Pearson has been a great leader at the PCSB.”

In 2011 Mr. Kern, along with Jerry Levine, who had been on the advisory board for the financing of the Nichols campus, established TenSquare.  The firm is named, according to Mr. Kern, after Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the United States Constitution that defines a federal district “not to exceed 10 miles square.”

The business began, recalls Mr. Kern, by doing some work around facilities for Next Step PCS and Eagle Academy PCS.  But it was Norm Johnson, the former executive director of IDEA PCS, who was the first to utilize TenSquare for the school turnaround improvement interventions for which TenSquare is most widely known.  When the company was formed, IDEA was a Performance Management Framework Tier 3 school facing its 15 year review.  Mr. Johnson was about to retire, and he was fearful that the charter would be revoked.  The situation IDEA found itself in was exactly the right one for TenSquare’s mission.

Mr. Kern explains, “It is getting harder and harder for stand-alone charter schools to prosper, in D.C. and in other cities and states.  The expectations around academics, facilities, compliance, regulatory requirements, and back office duties are increasing and becoming more and more complex.  The implicit and explicit belief is that charter schools can meet these demands on their own.  School leaders and boards often feel that they don’t need assistance.  But as authorizers mature in their oversight of charters, the requirements a school must meet for it to be defined as successful are going up exponentially.  It doesn’t count if a school was great 10 years ago.  What matters is the school’s performance right now.”

TenSquare engaged with IDEA PCS for three years and the results were astonishing.  On December 16, 2014, then-Mayor Vincent Gray joined school leaders in celebrating the charter’s academic improvement.  The press release for the event listed these statistics:

  • IDEA’s PMF scores increased 26 percentage points during the two probationary years, from 28.4 in 2012 to 54.4 in 2014
  • IDEA earned the designation of a DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education Reward School, an honor reserved for the top five percent of schools showing the greatest growth in student achievement, for two consecutive years
  • IDEA scholars outperformed all other high schools in Ward 7 on the DC-CAS in reading and math combined
  • Achievement on the DC-CAS math test increased by 29 percentage points to 67%, the greatest student gain of any DC high school in 2013–2014
  • Student progress in reading exceeded the growth target set by the PCSB, earning IDEA 100% of the points possible for this metric on the 2014 PMF

TenSquare has refined its approach over the years.  It now begins its school improvement engagements with charters by completing a comprehensive performance audit.  This document then leads to development of a customized improvement plan that normally spans four to five years.  The cost of the support depends upon the intensity of TenSquare’s day-to-day involvement. TenSquare charges based on the personnel it assigns to a school, distinguishing it from charter management organizations, which tend to charge a percentage of a school’s funding. During the first year or two, TenSquare might hire a new head of school as one of its staff members, who will eventually either become an employee of the charter or move on to another position.

The group has found over its seven years that by following its school improvement trajectory, a D.C. charter’s PMF will improve on average by 12 percentage points each year.  The average student Median Growth Percentile, a measure of academic improvement in math and English compared to their peers, will grow by a mean of 10 points in two years.

One interesting aspect I found about the way in which TenSquare operates is that when it comes into a school it often significantly raises teacher salaries.  “Underperforming schools generally underpay their teachers,” Mr. Kern observed.  The dollars needed to improve compensation come from substantial reductions in operating costs, which TenSquare is able to realize due to its expertise.  “We consistently see improvement in the school’s balance sheet and cash position,” Mr. Kern related.

TenSquare’s staff of 28 includes specialists with first-hand school experience leading academics, culture, operations and finance, facilities acquisition and development, talent management, and data analysis and compliance.  It currently operates in eight states, including Minnesota, Louisiana, Nevada, and North Carolina, and lists as its clients 25 charters,  In addition, TenSquare works directly with state and local authorizers on policy, charter reviews, and as receivers for under-performing schools.

Here in the nation’s capital TenSquare has partnered with Imagine Hope Community PCS’s Lamond Campus, and the William E. Doar, Jr. PCS for the Performing Arts (now renamed City Arts and Prep PCS).  Perry Street Prep PCS, YouthBuild PCS, Meridian PCS, and the Cesar Chavez PCS for Public Policy are currently using its services. In the school year 2016 to 2017, according to Mr. Kern,

  • Perry Street Prep was recognized by the DC PCSB as having the highest student growth among all charter schools,
  • YouthBuild Public Charter School not only attained Tier 1 status, but had the second highest GED attainment rate among charter adult programs, and
  • Meridian Public Charter School was acclaimed by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education for the largest growth in student in-seat attendance among all public schools.

Mr. Kern stressed that schools should not wait until they get into trouble before seeking outside help.  “In D.C. there is a high-stakes review every five years,” the TenSquare co-founder stated.  “If a school has a couple of bad years or even stays stagnant, then that means there has been lack of progress for 40 percent of that period.  It is therefore dangerous for charter boards of directors to see a year of declining academic results as an anomaly and wait to see if there is a trend.  Adding to all of the complexity of this situation is the fact that board members and school leadership frequently change.  In this environment of ever-rising accountability, it is especially important that schools enlist help before issues worsen. Also, schools are not immutably high or low performing. In any school, there’s always need for improvement and the possibility for success.”

I have to admit that it was a tough sell for me that charters should sign up for a performance audit even when indicators are pointing in the positive direction.  But perhaps Mr. Kern is correct.  After all, his instincts have been right before.  He founded one of D.C.’s leading high schools.  He was also the one who orchestrated an orderly transition of Options PCS, a school serving severely physically and emotionally disabled children, and one that the DC PCSB was about to shutter, to a new charter school serving the same students.  The reports he filed to the court in his time as receiver where a primer in operations management.  For these efforts Mr. Kern justly deserves our gratitude.  In all likelihood the same is true with TenSquare.

 

 

D.C. charter board takes a final vote to shutter Washington Math Science and Technology PCS

Last evening the DC Public Charter School Board decided to close Washington Math Science and Technology Public Charter High School at the end of the current school year.  The unanimous decision was reached despite the charter taking heroic efforts to reverse its dire financial state:

  • WMST has secured $97,000 in short term debt and other contributions that enabled it to meet the March 23rd payroll and pay other expenses.
  • The school’s staff has agreed to defer the April 6th payroll until the charter receives its fourth quarter annual payment which is due next week.
  • It has sold its building for $6.25 million with a July closing.
  • The charter has negotiated with the purchaser, Douglass Development, to occupy the building during the next school year rent-free.
  • WMST has reached an agreement with its mortgage and line-of-credit holders to delay payments of principal dollars until the purchase of the building has been finalized.
  • The charter has hired Building Hope to provide back-office financial services.
  • Building Hope has completed a financial forecast that shows that the school will have sufficient funds to complete the 2018-to-2019 term.

The forensic accounting firm hired by the PCSB to access the situation, StoneTurn, has concluded that the school still must obtain $500,000 in order to continue operating past June.  At the public hearing held on April 5th, the charter was hopeful that this money would come from Industrial Bank, but an agreement could not be finalized.  There is now a chance that United Bank will provide the needed cash, but that decision will not be made by this institution until today.  Therefore, the PCSB agreed to revoke the charter but will reverse the move if a loan comes through by six p.m. on Tuesday, and an acceptable financial corrective action plan is submitted by the school within the next three days.  The strict timeline is being driven by the fact that families have until May 1st to enroll their children in a public school.

Chair Rick Cruz issued the following statement following the board’s vote:

“Because WMST PCHS is not economically viable, we’re required to revoke its charter. I speak for our entire board when I say how deeply saddened we are that this came to pass. Throughout this difficult process, we have provided the school with all the support and flexibility we were able, but unfortunately the school was not able to close the large financial shortfall facing them. To minimize disruption to the students currently attending the school, we’ll ensure the school can operate through the end of the school year.  And in the coming days, our enrollment specialists will begin to work closely with every student and family to help them find a new school for the upcoming school year.”

The verdict appears reasonable, but I would provide you with a pass if you had tried to watch these proceedings live remotely and had not been successful in this effort.  The PCSB’s referred viewers, as has been the custom, to a Livefeed link in order to observe the session.  However, for some unknown reason, the broadcast was switched to Facebook.  The sound emitted from this social media website was practically unintelligible and the video seemed as if you were witnessing a meeting taking place on the moon.

In other news, the board heard from three charters proposing to open new schools.  There was no word as to why the Friendship PCS plan to expand its on-line campus through the twelfth grade was not included in this cohort.  When I first read the remaining three applications I thought none was strong enough to actually be approved to begin operation during the 2019 to 2020 school year.  But yesterday changed my mind.  Capital Village Academy PCS should definitely be given the green light.  The main representative for the charter did a perfectly eloquent job of making the case for the school.  It appeared that every facet of the application was well thought out and logical.

The M.E.C.C.A Business Learning Institute-D.C. PCS  presentation reflected the lack of clarity contained in its written bid.  Bolt PCS is the brain-child of my friend Seth Andrew, although he is not listed as a member of the founding group.  It would use his Washington Leadership Academy PCS’s curriculum.  The discussion around this school reminded me of the first iteration of WLA with its combination of residential and nonresidential instruction.  As occurred with Washington Leadership, this application should be refined.

Let’s sincerely hope that WMST can pull out another miracle today.

 

 

 

Mayoral control of D.C. public schools is about to be diluted

As was predicted here, Mayor Bowser’s control over D.C. public schools is about to take a hit, as the Washington Post’s Perry Stein reports:

“Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) introduced legislation that would establish a research arm of the government focused on education data and rebuilding trust in the District’s public schools.

‘We have been getting bad information — some of it just false, some of it misleading, some of it incomplete, and we can’t get a handle on what to do if we don’t know what’s happening,’ Cheh said.”

Pupils receiving high school diplomas that should not have graduated, a Deputy Mayor for Education and head of DCPS that skirted the common lottery to have the Chancellor’s child placed at an academically strong high school with a 600 student wait-list, together with residency fraud has cast doubt that the city’s top executive should have the only say on running the traditional school system.

The Mayor’s response to all of these severe problems has been mostly silence.  She has said that she will wait until after the Democratic primary on June 26th to begin the hunt for a new Chancellor.  Ms Bowser is therefore not exactly moving to set children up for a strong start of the new school term.

Ms. Stein reveals that a majority of D.C. coucilmembers are ready to get behind the plan, and it appears that they are not happy about the current state of public education in the District.  As evidence, they want the research board to audit education data going back 20 years.  The body would apparently also review the track record of D.C. charters, but it is unclear if it would actually have the power to take this step.

The new organization would reside within the Office of the D.C. Auditor, a clear signal that it would be independent of the current DCPS education bureaucracy.

What has become certain is that having the Deputy Mayor for Education, the State Superintendent of Education, and the Chancellor all falling under one person does not offer the checks and balances necessary to produce a high performing traditional public school system.

Instead of creation of a research advisory arm, DCPS could simply be moved under the DC Public Charter School Board.

Shantelle Wright reverses decision; will stay on as CEO of Achievement Prep PCS

The event last night at the AJAX event space located on 4th Street, N.W., was billed as a celebration of the first ten years of operation of Achievement Prep Public Charter School.  But as the crowd was building you could tell that something was unusual about this gathering.   For in the audience were some of the most prominent charter leaders of our city.  The guests included Allison Fansler, president and chief operating officer of KIPP DC PCS; Richard Pohlman, executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS; Seth Andrew, co-founder of Washington Leadership Academy PCS; Chris Pencikowski, head of school of Lee Montessori PCS; Mary Shaffner, executive director of District of Columbia International School PCS; Hilary Darilek, CEO of E.L. Haynes PCS; and Patricia Brantley, CEO of Friendship PCS.  Also joining my wife Michele and I were Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board; Ramona Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Association of Public Chartered Schools; Anne Herr, director of school quality at FOCUS; and Sekou Biddle, the FOCUS board chair.  I also spotted attorney Stephen Marcus, who has now become the crisis manager of charter schools before the DC PCSB.

But there was no emergency today.  Instead we were presented with a bombshell.  At the conclusion of a formal program that brought tears of joy to the eyes of many present in the room, Ms. Wright took the stage to announce that her work at Achievement Prep was not done.  She informed the stunned attendees that she had changed her mind and will remain the CEO of the school she founded in 2007.  Ms. Wright had written to me on January 5, 2008 to inform me that she was resigning her position.

In her speech, Ms. Wright admitted that mistakes at the school had been made and that most recently it has not been serving the children of Ward 8 according to its mission “to prepare students to excel as high-achieving scholars and leaders in high school, college, and beyond.”  She explained that Achievement Prep had grown too fast, an expansion that has resulted in the school’s Wahler Place elementary, serving pupils in pre-Kindgergarten three to third grade, being ranked Tier 3 school on the DC PCSB’s Performance Management Framework for the last two years. Its Wahler Place Middle school, enrolling grades four through eight, has earned a grade as barely a Tier 2 facility over the same time period.  In 2013 and 2014 this campus’ quality school report placed it at Tier 1.  During the November meeting of the DC PCSB, the elementary school campus was given strict PMF targets it will have to meet in coming years or it will be closed.

Others making remarks included Susie Cannon, the school’s chief academic officer, who has been with Ms. Wright from the beginning of the charter’s existence.  Her passionate words included the revelation that the school’s mission is repeated three times at every staff meeting and professional development session, the final time in unison.  Alumni Tykivis Hunter told the story of his mother holding him back from football practice one day without explanation.  It turned out that the reason for her decision was that Ms. Wright was paying him a visit; he had just been enrolled as a fourth grader at her school.  The young boy did not have the ability to read to the Achievement Prep CEO on that occasion.  He is now attending Virginia State University with all tuition paid following his graduation from Thurgood Marshall Academy.

Prior D.C. Mayor and current Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray offered kind words of congratulations to Ms. Wright.  Mr. Pearson took to the podium to highlight the tenacious spirit of the Achievement Prep CEO.  In comments that were especially animated for my friend, he related that during the many tense confrontations he has had with her over the years regarding differences of opinion, he has always loved the persona of Ms. Wright.   It was abundantly clear for all of us standing in the audience, the feeling toward this giant of D.C.’s charter school movement is exactly the same.